College was never an option for Sierra Burrell Aquaowo.
Growing up in the low-income area of Franklin, Louisiana, her future looked pretty dim. Around her, violence and drug use were the norm.
At 15, though, her life’s biggest blessing came.
She had her son, Kris’Shawn.
At that age, most girls are thinking about getting their driver’s permits and hanging out with friends. Not Sierra. She had a kid to raise.
Despite having a newborn, she graduated from high school.
“I couldn’t afford to go to college or anything,” she says. “I decided to join the Army. I had to join the Army. I had no other way to do it.”
While her friends were heading off to college, Sierra was heading to the recruiting station. She wanted to join the Navy at first, but they were hesitant to let a single mom with a toddler join.
Instead, she headed to the Army recruiter’s office. Her recruiter studied with her to ensure she scored high enough to enlist and get out of her hometown.
She’s been traveling the globe with the Army ever since.
Just like having a baby shook up her world, Sierra knew the military would change her life.
And it did.
Sixteen years later, she’s still active duty.
Throughout the years, she climbed the ranks and now serves as a First Sergeant.
And for someone who never thought she’d go to college, Sierra got the chance to earn her organizational management degree from the University of Phoenix and Ashford University.
Not only is she the first in her family to go into the military, she’s the first to go to college, too.
She gives all the credit to her son for such monumental, positive life changes.
Kris’Shawn — or Kris for short — is the only reason the military ever crossed Sierra’s mind. She says she didn’t want him growing up like she did.
The Army gave her the way out she needed. Even if it wasn’t always easy.
Before she could head off to basic training, Sierra made the difficult choice of giving her mother full custody of her son. The military won’t allow single parent recruits to sign contracts unless they give up full custody of their child, she explains.
“It was like the hardest thing ever. I believe I cried every day. I didn’t want to leave him because he was so little,” she says of leaving Kris behind with her mom. “He was so resilient. He understood why I joined the military. He understood I couldn’t stay at home.”
Now at 34 years old, she can’t imagine what her life would have been like without the military.
Or her son.
“My career is going really well. But it’s all because of him,” she says.
If she were talking to her 15-year-old self, Sierra says she would let her know it was all worth it.
“I would do it all over again just to see the outcome of him doing something positive for himself,” she says. “God, family, country. That’s what we always live by. When I live by those three, everything just turned out perfect. No matter how tough the deployment was or how far I was from him, it was a blessing.”
All Grown Up
Kris is now 18 years old.
He recently graduated from Marine basic training in San Diego. Sierra practically bursts with pride when she talks about him.
“Kris is a sweetheart,” she says. “He’s well mannered. Very respectable. He’s a hard worker. He’s a very quiet kid and very mature for his age. I guess he had to grow up fast because he moved around so much.”
She loves telling everyone how they currently have the same MOS, too: Human Resources.
He graduated from basic training in October, which Sierra and Kris’ dad had the opportunity to attend. Now Kris is at Camp Pendleton for rifle school.
He’ll transfer in early 2020 to North Carolina.
Sierra can’t wait to have him closer to her as she’s currently serving at Fort Benning. She plans to visit with him for every holiday she can once he’s back on the east coast, close to her station.
They’ve done enough holidays apart because of her Army career. To make up for some lost time, she plans to soak up every opportunity she gets to see Kris.
Even though Sierra wanted him to join the Army, too, he declined. He said he wanted something “harder” to go after, she says with a laugh.
She wasn’t surprised by her son’s decision to join the military, either. He’s always been strong-willed. Not to mention, both of his parents are military. His dad is serving as a Marine gunnery sergeant.
“He’s very strong-minded because he’s always been around the military,” says Sierra. “We always knew [he would join]. It was weird. Since he was a freshman in high school he had joined JROTC. We just didn’t know which branch of service he was going to join.”
Even though Sierra’s been a drill sergeant and doesn’t consider herself an “emotional person,” she couldn’t hold herself together when she saw her son in uniform for the first time at his basic training graduation.
“The military teaches you not to be emotional. But when I saw my son in his uniform, I cried,” she says. “It was a great feeling to see my son doing something very positive in life. He could have taken a different path.”
Not Much of a Letter Writer
When Sierra saw her son off at MEPS, she said she did okay.
Then the obsessive mailbox-checking behavior kicked in.
“As a single mom, it felt overwhelming. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I was very excited, of course, very emotional,” she says of sending Kris off to basic. “I was very scared. I was a drill sergeant, so I knew they were going to yell at my son.”
Perhaps the hardest part for Sierra was her son’s extreme focus.
Kris didn’t write his mom for seven weeks.
Undeterred, she wrote him every week.
She had a Sandboxx account, which made it easier for her to type off a fast letter with a photo — even on her busiest days. In fact, she got her son’s correct address from Sandboxx just a few days after he arrived to basic training.
“I used Sandboxx for seven weeks straight. I hadn’t received a letter,” she says.
He let her know he had gotten every single one of her letters. He just didn’t have the time to write her back.
“Sandboxx is really good. The app is free. Just keeping me updated with what my son is doing [was great],” she says. “Some kids don’t write back, so Sandboxx kept me motivated.”
Letters, she says, are everything.
As a former drill sergeant and now a military parent, Sierra encourages all family members to send recruits letters.
“That mail builds morale. The soldiers, they’re by themselves,” she says. “To see what’s going on back at home, it feels good to see someone cares and someone sends you letters. Those soldiers are lonely. They get depressed. Every day when my soldiers received letters, they loved it. Once they receive letters, they’re happy.”
She says it’s especially important for deployed service members, too.
“Even when I was deployed and received mail, it made me happy,” she says.
For her, Sandboxx made getting that paper morale booster out faster. Time, she says, isn’t much of luxury she has these days. On top of her current HR duties, Sierra has a two-year-old daughter as well.
“I know people like handwritten letters. But I can pick up my phone and send him a letter and tell him I appreciate him,” she says of the Sandboxx app. “Everybody uses their phones for everything. I can use my phone and instead of going to Walgreens and getting pictures printed. It was so easy. It’s very helpful.”
As Sierra reflects on her son’s upcoming career, she can’t help but praise his efforts. Even though she’s aware of the dangers his career could hold, she’d rather think of the positives.
She encourages other military parents to do the same. The pride can outweigh the fear, she says.
“He signed up to serve his country. I’m very happy for him,” she says. “I’m glad he raised his hand and served his country. As a soldier, I’m very,very proud of him for serving his country.”
Do you have an inspiring Sandboxx story to share? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to feature your experience on our blog!